Caution minor spoilers ahead.
What do you get when you take a bit of Truman Show, mix in a little Evil Dead and of course the secret ingredient; a whole lot of love?
You get; The Cabin in the Woods.
The film is the brainchild of geek-god Joss Whedon (Buffy, Avengers) and Drew Goddard (Angel, Lost, Cloverfield), with Goddard handling the reigns for his directorial debut.
The film which has laid dormant since 2010 ( its original release date) due to MGM’s financial woes has been given life by Lionsgate in the US and Roadshow Film Distributors in Australia. And after some delay we as a hungry insatiable audience for smart and entertaining films, should be grateful for it.
We know from the outset that this isn’t going to be your by the numbers horror film despite the title. Yes there is the ubiquitous ‘cabin in the woods’, but what happens within turns the horror genre conventions on its head.
The plot for which I will be extremely brief has our college students pack into an RV off to the cabin for a spirited weekend away. The usual suspects are here; the alpha male (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth), his blonde girlfriend (Anna Hutchinson), the nerdy nice guy (Jesse Williams), the pot-head (Fran Kranz) and our smart, sexy heroine (Kristen Connolly).
We also learn early on that these young people are being watched by a group of what appear to be lab coat engineers, led by actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, in a subterranean laboratory .
How these two groups interact is at the core of what makes this film tick.
The performances are all fun with the actors hitting just the right notes for their respective roles. Fran Kranz is great as the pot smoking Shaggy character (the film felt at times like an adults only version of Scooby Doo- minus Scooby Doo). And Kristen Connolly gives a nuanced performance in the lead role. Chris Hemsworth is suitably heroic and charismatic, in a role that would prepare him for bigger things to come.
The witty workplace banter between character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, alongside Whedon veteran Amy Ackers (Angel, Dollhouse) is also immensely enjoyable.
There are horror film references galore here. Everything from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead to Hellraiser to Suspiria. Whedon and Goddard clearly love the horror genre and are taking great pleasure in stringing the audience along for a familiar, yet subsequently unfamiliar journey. They know the rules of the genre (knowing full well that we do to) and are taking great joy in breaking these rules at every opportunity.
Wes Craven’s Scream films played on genre conventions to a certain degree but not in the same way. Those films still stuck with the slasher formula, but allowed their characters to be more self aware.
What sets this apart from the pack is Whedon and Goddard take the time to pose some interesting questions to the audience. The film whilst being funny and scary is also deconstructing the horror genre. Why do we expect certain character archetypes in a horror film? Do the characters make decisions of their own free will or based on genre constraints? Does this in turn limit the filmmaker’s choices?
This is pretty deep stuff but it doesn’t get bogged down with this theoretical jargon and makes sure the audience can still enjoy the film on a more visceral level with plenty of blood and gore. The climatic scenes reduced the audience I was sitting with to more whooping and hollering than I’ve heard in a cinema for some time. Or maybe that was just me.
The Cabin in the Woods is the type of meta-film I have no doubt will be dissected by film theorists and horror fans for years to come.
Is it the scariest film I’ve ever seen? Not at all. But that doesn’t seem to be the filmmaker’s objective.
Despite its lofty intellectual pursuits it does what any film should do first and foremost and that is to entertain its audience.